The recent jailing and deportation of a British teacher in Sudan highlights yet again the depths to which ultraconservative religious fanatics are damaging one of the great faiths of mankind.
Gillian Gibbons’ “offense” was to allow her 7-year-old students to name a class teddy bear Muhammad. She was initially threatened with a possible sentence of 40 lashes but was sentenced to 15 days in jail, before her deportation.
This was deemed by Sudan’s obscurantist courts to be an insult to the Prophet and to Islam as a faith, although after serving 3 days Gibbons was pardoned and released by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.
In a repetition of a now depressingly familiar pattern, the only ones in this affair who have insulted Islam are the extremists and the court that bowed to their intolerant demands.
This isn’t a case of cross-cultural misunderstanding, in which a better-educated Westerner would have avoided an error that would predictably have caused offense to Muslims. Rather, it is a case of fanatics once again finding offense over something that is no insult at all to any sensible Muslim anywhere in the world. After the verdict, the most extreme of these radicals publicly protested, with several hundred actually calling for her execution.
Widespread dismay in Sudan over the entire shameful incident, even among some government officials, demonstrates the extent to which this case is shocking to many Muslims around the world.
However, the craven capitulation of the court shows the influence that these fanatics have acquired in Sudan. More significantly, it reveals the extent to which this affair was driven by domestic political power struggles and a social agenda that is, at heart, not properly religious but about control and authority.
An analogous controversy has erupted in Saudi Arabia, where a court has seen fit to sentence a rape victim to some 200 lashes for being in the company of a man to whom she was not related. She was abducted by seven other men and gang-raped. Again, the Saudi court and its apologists have attempted to justify this travesty on religious grounds, citing “Islamic law” and values.
As in the Sudan case, the silver lining is the outcry against its decision not only internationally but also among Saudis.
Indeed, the scandal may well be precipitating a society-wide rethinking about attitudes toward women who are victims of sexually based offenses. And, as in the Sudan case, the threat of lashes imposed on an innocent person is unlikely to be carried out.
However, the fact that such a verdict could have been reached in the first place, and that there are some clerics and commentators in the Arab media who are willing to defend it, illustrates the depth of the problem.
Sadly, while hardly characterizing the normal course of justice in Muslim states generally, these cases are not the isolated incidents one would have hoped.
Stoning executions in Iran of adulterers and homosexuals, the infamous albeit overturned stoning death sentence against an unmarried pregnant woman in northern Nigeria, and countless absurd blasphemy and apostasy cases and convictions in many Muslim countries make such a conclusion unfortunately impossible.
Such judicial abuses illustrate that a corrosive and morally blind form of religiosity has spread much too far in the Islamic world in recent decades.
This is faith shorn of spirituality and religion reduced to a vulgar and often vicious punitive code that bears no resemblance to the principles of traditional Islam and the God who is continuous referred to in the Quran as “the compassionate and the merciful” — two values almost completely missing from the mind-set of the present day ultraconservatives in the Muslim world.
These scandals not only damage their own societies, they also promote the worst possible impression of Islam and Muslims and contribute greatly to the false impression in the West that they somehow typify the Islamic faith in action and the generalized attitude of Muslims around the world, including American Muslims. Bigots and Islamophobes could not wish for a more generous contribution to their campaign of hatred against all things Muslim.
While extremism is always present in any society, the present fit of politicized religious dementia gaining ground in the Islamic world is a relatively recent phenomenon. This is a version of Islam that was all but unknown to me as a boy growing up in the Middle East in the 1960s and ’70s.
Like the rioters who considered violent rage to be an appropriate response to offensive cartoons in a Danish newspaper, or those who misuse religion to justify attacks on civilians, the ones who are inflicting the most serious damage to Islam and the Muslims are the religious extremists seeking political advantage by promoting a version of the faith that is devoid of human values and common decency.
What bigger insult to Islam could there possibly be?